There is an argument to be made that the writing of the beat generation has had a detrimental effect on the literary pretensions of male writers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Bukowski, Kerouac and their ilk are often mentioned as influences in the writing of young men, as they are here in Brentley Frazer’s frustrating memoir Scoundrel Days, but that is not necessarily a ringing endorsement. The days of readers wishing to revel in the aggressively masculine, hedonistic worlds of hard drinking, drug-taking and sexual conquest are long gone. Or perhaps they just seem especially dated and repugnant in an era of Trumpist sexual boasting.
Scoundrel Days begins promisingly. Frazer, a poet, now in his mid-40s, was raised within a religious cult – The Truth, or Two by Twos – in the tiny Queensland mining town of Greenvale. The early passages in which he navigates a rough-as-guts childhood, fighting his way through school and avoiding the sexual predator tramp preachers who have raped his friends, are compelling, doubly so because Frazer has chosen to write the text in English Prime. This literary affectation, which eschews all use of the verb “to be”, is a staggering undertaking for a memoir writer. It works admirably, as it denies the opportunity to excessively navel gaze, and lends the narrative a novelistic feel.
Frazer’s early teenage years as graffiti tagger “Mr Risk” are also interesting, but the story quickly dips into a directionless tirade of faux-punk drunkenness and seedy encounters with dozens upon dozens of stunning, messed-up young women. The book continues in this vein until the final page. Frazer remarks towards the end: “I don’t want to wake up one day all beat and grey and regret what I didn’t do, all the art and drugs and poetry and beautiful women naked in the morning light.” Which is fine – scribbling about it in a Moleskine on a bus back in 1996 must have engendered romantic notions of following in the footsteps of giants. Publishing such mid-20s existential male pseudo-beatnik claptrap in 2017 is a different thing entirely.
The shame is that Frazer’s childhood in The Truth is so teasingly dismissed, as he chooses instead to chronicle the most boring decade of a young literary hoon’s life, aping, for the umpteenth time, the tired old conventions of a movement whose toxic influence still lingers. JD
UQP, 312pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Brentley Frazer, Scoundrel Days". Subscribe here.